A sculpture of enslaved men, women and children seen in Alabama Bicentennial Park in Montgomery, Alabama on January 24, 2023. Alabama was a slave state from 1819 to 1865, and Montgomery was a major slave trading destination. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)
A House and a Senate committee Wednesday separately approved two bills that take sharply divergent approaches to teaching history, particularly on racial issues.
The Senate bill, SB 180, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, requires that history in Alabama be fact-based and inclusive and was approved by the Senate Education Policy Committee.
“You go walk in your school, look at a book, you know, the person that created the plasma, the person who created the stoplight, those were African-Americans,” he said. “You look in that book, and they’ll say, the traffic light was, you know, produced and manufactured by General Electric.”
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Later on Wednesday, the State Government Committee approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, that restricts the discussion of “divisive concepts” in school, including the idea that any group of people should feel guilt over past oppression of another.
“It simply prevents the teaching of the divisive concepts which we have discussed in great detail that would, that we believe would tend to make kids, would teach them racist ideas,” Oliver told the committee.
The separate committees took divergent views of the legislation. Smitherman’s bill passed the Senate committee 8-0 with little debate. Smitherman said the bill, filed on March 28, came from an earlier resolution that originated in the Senate to honor Women’s History Month. Many of the women listed were Black women.
“If you go back and look at that resolution, it talks about the various women, what they did, it talks about what they provided in this state,” Smitherman said. “And it was done in a very good, respectful, tasteful way that provided for inclusion. Half the women were Black, half wasn’t Black, there was just accomplishments or what people did in this state.”
By contrast, Oliver’s bill passed its committee on a 9-3 vote that fell along party lines. Black members of the committee said it was an attempt to stop the teaching of Black history in schools.
Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, recalled when that she delivered her high school graduation speech just after the ruling in 1954’s Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared school segregation unconstitutional. Her teacher told her that she needed to change the end of her speech and that Boyd would need to fight for public education going forward.
“You will always defend them and teach other people to do this,” she recalled her teacher telling her.
Boyd told herself not to cry as she spoke.
“I want other people who come up after me to have those same rights to know that you can be what you want to be,” she said.
Supporters of Oliver’s bill invoked critical race theory, an academic legal framework that studies the persistence of racism in American society. Becky Gerritson, executive director of Eagle Forum, a conservative lobbying group. spoke in favor of the bill, saying that while critical race theory is a college-level theory, concepts associated with critical race theory are being taught.
“Children are encouraged to view social interaction through the lens of race,” she said.
School leaders in Alabama have repeatedly said critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools.
Opponents said the bill would restrict the discussion of history. Robert White, a pastor and a college professor, said that college students and third-graders should not be put in the same category. He said that people disagree with him in both of his roles, and he thinks that people should prove him wrong or right in those cases.
“And I think this bill is one of many that is trying to take away our freedoms and our rights, especially the academic and intellectual freedoms,” he said.
Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, said after the meeting that Oliver’s bill ran counter to the teaching of social studies courses of study. He had previously said that Smitherman’s bill was aligned with the courses of study.
“This creates an atmosphere where I think teachers are going to steer away from that course of study requirement because, again, it sets up a reasonable response of fear on the part of educators who have to think seriously about whether it’s worth risking their livelihoods in order to address topics that are controversial and can be difficult,” he said.
Oliver’s bill moves to the House; Smitherman’s moves to the Senate. Smitherman’s bill was filed after Oliver’s, but Smitherman said after the committee meeting that he does not see his bill in conflict with HB7.
“This is raw history,” he said. “This is not an opinion, this is not someone trying to get theory or philosophy about history or anything. This is just raw facts.”
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